The Obama administration has put an early emphasis on diplomacy and development, breathing new life into the U.S. State Department with the introduction last week of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The rousing welcome ceremony on Thursday — the smiles and handshakes — told it all. This is a department that feels back in business, says Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.
"It reflected the strong desire of our members and of State Department employees worldwide for change, for a secretary who is prepared to pay attention to the needs of the foreign service and the State Department," he said.
In the corridors of the department, one ambassador said he felt he had new wind in his sails. Clinton said what many State Department officials wanted to hear.
"I'm going to be asking a lot of you. I want you to think outside the proverbial box. I want you to give me the best advice you can," Clinton said. "I want you to understand there is nothing that I welcome more than a good debate and the kind of dialogue that will make us better."
Kashkett says he has heard nothing but positive reviews so far from foreign and civil service officers in Washington and abroad.
"We take that to mean that there will be a lively discussion of important policy matters and that our professional diplomats who have tremendous experience will be a part of that discussion," he said.
If after eight years of the Bush administration, State Department employees felt the need for a morale boost, the need was even greater at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
American Foreign Service Association representative Francisco Zamora welcomed Clinton there Friday with a hopeful attitude.
"It would be redundant to point out the underfunding and understaffing that our agency has been suffering for more than a decade now," he said. "You and President Obama have been very clear about the need to turn this around. Thank you."
Diplomacy Complementing Military
Clinton didn't give any hints about how she might reorganize U.S. assistance efforts, but said she believes that development and diplomacy should be full partners with defense in U.S. foreign policy. She made clear that she thinks the U.S. has been relying too heavily on the military in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is ... ironic that our very best young military leaders ... are given unfettered resources through the Commander's Emergency Response Program to spend as they see fit to build a school, to open a health clinic, to pave a road, and our diplomats and our development experts have to go through miles of paperwork to spend 10 cents," she said to applause. "It is not a sensible approach."
She reminded the crowd, however, that these are tough financial times, so the development experts and diplomats will have to make a strong case for boosting U.S. foreign assistance. Those words of caution didn't detract from the mood in the packed auditorium. The acting USAID administrator joked that he didn't have to bring in the rock star Bono to get such a crowd: Clinton's presence was enough.